Coping with stress

It is that time of the year again when pupils, especially matrics, have to crunch down and study!  It is, sadly, also a time when many pupils (and students), cannot find ways to cope with their stress and commit suicide.

So, what can we, as parents, teachers, family and friends do to help each other cope with stress?

First, we have to distinguish between “good” and “bad” stress.  “Good” stress is when you are nervous about something, but you can handle the situation without going into a complete state of panic and a loss of words.  “Bad” stress is when you have so much stress and worries that you do not know how to cope with it.  It can also be linked to sadness and mourning (grieving).  This stress often builds up through time until one day it all just comes crashing down.

Adults (parents and teachers alike) play a big role in stress management, as children learn by example.  The way the adult(s) cope with stress will teach the child(ren) how to deal with their stress.  It is good to talk about what is bothering you, but it is not helping anyone if you either bottle your feelings up, going into a fit of rage / panic, or grabbing for an external coping mechanism (whether it be a drink, a cigarette or food).  Many people suffer from emotional eating disorders.  Others stop eating when they are stressed.  These are all signs to look out for – especially in young children who cannot always put their feelings into words.

How can one help each other then?

First, it is vital to have a support group, a best friend / confidante, that you can talk to without being judged;

For children it is important to know that mom and/or dad will always listen, without judgement or criticism. 

Often children get teased by other children and/or older siblings – watch for any signs in your child’s behaviour that changes all of a sudden, for example, the child doesn’t share their feelings / thoughts anymore.

Long-term stress can cause havoc on the system (both physically, emotionally and mentally).  Chronic inflammation can set in, causing anything from acne, allergies, premature ageing and strokes, to cancer, obesity, weight gain and intestinal issues.  It is thus vital to make sure that you get extra nutrients in in times of stress so that it can help the body to cope. These include:

Sweet potatoes:  low in starch but rich in antioxidants, vitamin E and beta carotene. 

Fatty / Oily fish:  Salmon, mackerel, tuna, yellowtail, sole and sardines are all high in Omega-3 fatty acids.  Pilchards are another good source of fatty acids.  Eating oily fish at least twice per week was found to reduce the risk of heart disease-development, which is often related to stress.  If you / someone in the family doesn’t like oily fish, make sure to buy a good omega-3 supplement. 

Nuts and seeds (e.g. sesame and sunflower seeds):  full of healthy fats, protein, essential vitamins, minerals, fibres and antioxidants.  Do remember to eat nuts in moderation, as they are high in kilojoules.

Berries:  high in antioxidants and low in fat and kilojoules.  Blueberries, for example, can help to reduce oxidative stress and protect the body against ulcerative colitis and intestinal-inflammation.  Red raspberry extract, according to studies done, helps to prevent arthritis-development in animals.  Research has also shown that women who eat more strawberries, have lower levels of C-reactive protein CRP in the blood (it is a substance produced by the liver that increases when there is stress in the body).  Fresh or frozen, add berries to your shopping list and add them to your muesli, yoghurt, dessert or smoothies.

Whole grains:  oats, quinoa, brown rice, rye, barley and wheat, are all whole grains.  Whole grains contain more fibre and keeps your blood sugar levels even (unlike refined starches that can play havoc on your blood sugar levels and make you drowsy when you need to be alert for studying).

Cold-pressed Olive oil:  good source of Omega 3’s, it contains natural anti-inflammatory properties and is good “food” for both your brain and your heart.  Another good source is flaxseed oil. 

If anybody is allergic to shellfish, make sure that the Omega-3 supplement is not using shellfish.  At DisChem you can buy Omega 3:6:9-supplement in liquid form made from seeds. 

You can also add eggs, chicken and lots of raw fruits and vegetables to your meals.  Eliminate, as far as possible, refined sugars and carbohydrates, caffeine, nicotine and artificial colouring (especially found in processed meals).

Vitamins and minerals: they are vital during this time.  Taking extra supplements will help the brain to function more optimally and will help keep your immune system-levels high.  Vitamin C is important to maintain a strong immune system.  Vitamin B plays a key role here, because when you stress the body uses vitamins B6 & B12 first. Zinc and vitamin D are also very important for cognitive function and stability of the brain and nervous system.  A good supplement of calcium and magnesium (with added zinc and vitamin D), vitamin C and a multi-vitamin B supplement are advised.  An excellent, natural remedy to help you and/or your child or partner cope with stress, is Rescue Remedy. In South Africa you get the drops and the tablets. It calms you down without making you drowsy, weepy or over-emotional.

Exercise:  just as eating a healthy, balanced meal is important, so too is exercise.  Whether you go for a walk or a run, skip rope or ride a bicycle, get out into the fresh air (or the gym if you prefer) and get away from the books and the stress.  Exercise in any form will help the body to excrete serotonin – the “happy” hormone, that helps the body to not only cope with stress, but also get rid of it.  A clear head and a state of calmness, will give you more clarity about a situation and will help you to study better. 

Sleep:  it is very important that you get a good night’s rest on a regular basis.  Not only is it a time when the body regenerates itself, but it is also a time when the brain can relax and rewire.  Do make sure that your bedroom is dark and quiet.  If you struggle to meditate and/or sleep; remember:  always switch your cell phone, laptop and/or television off at least 30 minutes before you go to bed.  It you look at either of the screens just before you put your light out the brain “stays awake” as it were and you will struggle to fall asleep.  Still struggling and counting sheep?  Have some warm milk with cinnamon in; or shower with / bath in lavender.  You can also place some lavender under your pillow.  Both will help to calm you down and stop you from counting sheep the whole night!

Taking enough breaks:  the minute you start to feel tired or your brain feels fuzzy, get up, go for a walk and get some fresh air.  Even taking catnaps in-between your studying can do wonders for the body, the brain and your eyes!  Just looking out the window (without concentrating hard), can help to relax your eyes and brain.

Meditate:  it is vital that you take breaks and relax, breathe deeply and just forget for a moment about the stress / upcoming exam.  You can focus on your breathing, listen to calm music, the birds outside, take a shower or bath, and just become still.

Laugh:  laughter is the best medicine – something that has been said time and time again.  Watch a comedy, read a funny book, make a note to laugh when you are out with your friends, smile and tell funny jokes!   Not only will you look and feel younger, but laughing produces serotonin (the “happy hormone”), which reduces anxiety and stress, and also helps us to cope better during stressful periods.

Study-area:  make sure that your study-nook is clean and tidy.  Get rid of clutter and things that is not important when you are busy studying.  Make sure the room is well ventilated and there is enough natural light coming in. 

Water:  make sure that you drink enough water during this time.  Staying hydrated not only keeps your energy levels up, but also keeps your brain-cells active.

Some tips from Doctor Gillian Mooney (dean of academic development and support at The Independent Institute of Education) to gear young adults alike for the future:

  1. Be well organized – get into the habit of doing daily administrative and organizational tasks;
  2. Boost your computer skills – taking notes faster will help to improve productivity;
  3. Be a multitasker – instead of playing computer games or listening to music when you take a break, download an app / audiobook / game about the subject that you are studying;
  4. Changing times – teach children from a young age that learning and studying is a life-long process.  “Life is a journey, not a destination.” 
  5. The saying goes “one is never too old to learn.”  This is important to remember, because to be able to learn new skills in the workplace, for example, and to be able to multitask, are two of the important factors that employees look for today.

All in all, studying can be fun, it can be something that you enjoy, as long as you find a method that works for you and you use your time wisely.  Many schoolchildren and students who obtain many distinctions all say one thing:  the more you listen in class (and/or take notes), then less you have to study at home!  Going over the work done in the class the same day will help you to remember it better. 

Good luck to all the children, students and their family, for the upcoming exam-period!  Do your best and the rest will follow!

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